Backed by GOED funds, ag-biotech startup spins out of DRI |

Backed by GOED funds, ag-biotech startup spins out of DRI

Kaleb M. Roedel

In 2014, Reno native Brian Speicher took a job that brought him back to the Biggest Little City.

After carving out a 20-year career in the life sciences private sector on the East Coast, primarily in R&D in the pharmaceutical industry, Speicher returned home to be the Desert Research Institute’s first-ever business development lead.

“My mandate was to walk the halls and find opportunities to steer innovation toward the private sector, and take a standard innovation or entrepreneurial path you’d see in the private sector,” Speicher said in a phone interview with the Northern Nevada Business Weekly.

Six years later, one of the concepts Speicher led the creation of has become the first research-based company that DRI has successfully spun out.

Tu Biomics, inspired by DRI’s expertise in microbial ecology, is an agricultural biotechnology startup that targets the soil health challenges associated with industrial-scale farming, according to DRI in a June 25 press release.

In a nutshell, Reno-based Tu Biomics is seeking to scale up its creation of “organic crop protection protects,” Speicher told the NNBW.

According to DRI, its Frits Went Laboratory, an advanced research facility that includes four unique controlled environment chambers, served as the foundation for DRI researchers to help Tu Biomics develop its lab-to-field trials targeting harmful pathogens in garlic, leafy greens and strawberry crops.

DRI says Tu Biomics has demonstrated the ability of its biocontrol agents (BCAs) to suppress eight “economically significant” soil-borne diseases affecting hundreds of agricultural and ornamental plants globally.

Speicher said Tu Biomics is seeking to address not only a need for sustainable agriculture, but also a demand from consumers for organic fruits and vegetables that are not exposed to agriculture chemicals.

“We’re in the R&D pilot phase, and within the next 12 months we think we’re going to scale up to what we call ‘field scale’ and start selling products to growers,” Speicher said. “With California right next door as one of the global epicenters of farming, we’re in a great position where we can drive over the mountain and be in all of those different communities.

“Whether it’s the growers or chemical companies, we have all of that stuff in our backyard.”

The startup aims to hire up to five full-time employees within the next year, said Speicher, currently the company’s only full-time employee.

Tu Biomics’ growth and support stems from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) Knowledge Fund, which provided $350,000 toward a research project at DRI.

Later, Tu Biomics received nearly $1 million in seed financing from venture investors and industry partners, according to DRI.

The state venture program Battle Born Growth Escalator also provided key seed funding.

“Identifying and developing the technology further towards market readiness as well as the actual Tu Biomics business formation is an excellent example of how GOED’s Knowledge Fund works,” Michael Brown, GOED executive director, said in a press release.

For Speicher, Tu Biomics’ spin out of DRI serves as a “great example” that Nevada’s university system is capable of creating “worthwhile solutions to real problems.”

To that end, he believes Tru Biomics is the first startup of many that will spin out of the DRI and address challenges in a number of industries.

He added: “So, hopefully, it serves as a bit of entrepreneurial attraction, as well, in Northern Nevada.”